Programming at a Conference

The conversation started by All About Development was (and still is) overwhelming. Allow me to continue my thoughts from that sleep deprived and annoyed post with another one focusing on the programs/sessions that occur during a conference.

There have been a number of great posts that have been shared, written, commented on since that post last week. Check here, here, here, here, and here. I’m also still working on the schedule for the Google Hangout. I’m thinking next week this will happen.

I want to discuss the programming structure. This is nothing new for me. I started this conversation outside of a fantastic panel discussion at NASPA Region I conference in Sturbridge, MA. It was me, Dean Elmore, and Valerie Heruska talking about how there was no talk about Penn State or the economy in Greece at the conference. Two issues at the peak of their attention on news stations around the country and they weren’t even on the table for discussion. Why? Because we do conferences wrong and have been for years.

Disclaimer: I’m not going to argue the point of the professional development of programs. This is purely the process, accountability, and structure. Content I’ll tackle another day/night. 

How does a the call for programs typically go for a conference?

– E-mail goes out TEN months in advance announcing a call for programs (Let’s say May)
– Due date for submissions is SEVEN months in advance (This would be September)
– Successful proposals accepted and presenters notified FIVE months in advance (This is October)
– FIVE months later, the proposal written and submitted SEVEN months before the conference are presented.

We can do better.

How are programs selected?

– Members review and recommend which sessions get approved.
– See above. Yes, read it twice.

We can do better.

Are programs held accountable for what they submitted?

– No.

We can do better.

There are so many paths I want to take right now with this post try to follow along.

First, ten months. TEN months. You are telling me that a notice of ten months is necessary to get the amount of programs needed to fill a conference schedule? Are you telling your students now to plan for their housing deposit for the 2013-2014 housing year? Seems a bit like overkill doesn’t it? Heck, it practically kills any opportunity for someone who joins higher education in the Fall semester to do anything (assuming they are coming from out of industry and aren’t totally familiar with annual conferences). “Hey that program I did last semester (spring 09) would make a great program at the annual conference. I can’t wait to present it in the spring of 2010.” We can do better than this folks.

Asking for proposals seven months in advance of the conference seems a bit ridiculous given the technology we have now. Has this timeline changed since the advent of social media? E-mail? It seems like a timeline fit for a time of snail mail and fax machines. How could we not turn this around quicker to allow for more current topics?

I’ll get into what I would do in a second but let me get to this last point. Peer reviewed sessions. I was a first year graduate student and I was reviewing conference program proposals. This was great for my professional growth in the sense of giving me examples of how to write a good (or bad) conference proposal. Personally, this is a fantastic exercise. Professionally, you are letting first year graduate students decide what sessions get presented at a national conference? We can do better. No offense to first-year graduate students, but what training have you had to do this? Oh wait, it is just personal judgment. “Oh I don’t like Pixar movies so this session doesn’t really make sense to me. It probably won’t make sense to anyone else either.” See the flaw? I reviewed conference proposals for one organization that actually had a portal that let you see what other reviewers ranked it (and who they were!). So much for unbiased opinions. “Wait so this SSAO ranked this low, well I can’t rank it high then. They’ll see it and I can’t disagree with them.” Face meet palm.

Finally, I could write this fantastic proposal with all the bells and whistles. The conference could arrive and guess what? Whoops, the presentation didn’t take the form we thought it would. Instead of the promised laser show, we have some noise makers and will break out to small groups to kill time. Is anyone holding presenters accountable for following through on their proposal? If you say, “well the organization is it’s members,” please DM me or e-mail me so we can talk. My presentation could be terrible but guess what? It will still go on my resume saying I presented at XYZ conference. We must do better.

I’m not just about thoughts. Here are some ideas to propose to help move this “issue” forward.

Conference Proposals

First, I know most organizations have buckets that you can say your presentation falls into (leadership, technology, diversity, social justice, etc). That’s a fun way to characterize, organize, and advertise the sessions but there is room for improvement there.

Step 1: Self identify. “I’ve presented nationally and/or regionally…0-3 times, 4-6 times, 7-9 times, 10+ times.” This gives the reviewer some perspective and sets expectations appropriately. Would you stick around for a session if you knew it was from someone who has presented more than 10 times? I would. Guess who gets those morning sessions? Yup. The presentation “pros”, how’s that for a carrot? People will wake up for those. Yes, this is counter-intuitive. Why not give pros the prime time slot? Well, they didn’t get to be pros overnight. Someone had to give them a chance, and quite frankly, presenting to a half full room at 7:30 a.m. is not a way to reward a new presenter for putting themselves out there.

Step 2: Proposal identity. The conference theme determines 1 to 5 buckets/tracks for presentations. Presentations can only go in one bucket. One bucket must be current topics which means the timeline is truncated and much shorter than 10 months. Buckets are clearly defined, with separate rubrics, and specific reviewers. Buckets are structured into the conference. Day 1 =bucket A and B in the morning. bucket C and D in the afternoon. Day 2 = bucket C and D in the morning. bucket A and B in the afternoon. Day 3 = User created buckets voted on starting night of Day 1 and all day until night of Day 2. Could you imagine a conference changing mid-conference to appeal to the needs/desires of attendees by the last day?! The last day is user generated. WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO STAY TO SEE WHAT THEY VOTED ON AND CREATED?! Engagement starts as soon as the conference kicks off. Talk about being bold without boundaries….

Step 3: Send a sample. That’s right, this means no procrastinating. With the truncated timeline, if you are planning on presenting asking for a 3-slide, 60 second presentation preview for your session shouldn’t be a problem. (I’m sure many scripts look great on paper but horrible on film. This is no different for proposals.)

Conference Session Selection

I love the volunteer effort. I really do, I think I’ve benefited from volunteering my time to review sessions. Let me ask you this though, if you are building a house do you want a volunteer who has never held a hammer building your house? (Yes, I’ve done this with Habitat for Humanity but even they have supervisors watching the volunteers.) I didn’t think so. You want someone trained in what you are doing so you know if you are doing it correctly. How come we don’t? What ever made me qualified to say whether or not a presentation will be great for the conference and attendees? We need training. We need a better rubric. We need to have “volunteer” program reviewers have…*cringe* credentials to do so. Back to the house reference, house inspectors need to be trained to inspect houses. If a conference is our home of professional development, who the heck is inspecting it and are they qualified to do so? We can do better.


We need secret shoppers. Seriously. Don’t give me the “a organization is its members” sch-peal. Should a room of my peers give me enough incentive to perform well? Yes, yes it should. Would having someone there that is an official “judge” help step my game up that much more? Absolutely. What does this mean? It means that the review submitted by the judge is an official document from the organization. This translates into professional portfolio materials (see LinkedIn recommendations and/or justification for spending department money to present). The reviews that are returned to presenters FOUR months after the presentation are constructive how? Heck, four months later my presentation could have been revamped three times over and morphed into something different. FOUR MONTHS. WE. CAN. DO. BETTER. How can we not do live feedback forms that people fill out as the session goes online? How is this not possible?

If you want to say I’m all talk. Go for it. I hope to be in positions to possibly join conference committees (regional, national, virtual) when the job search process settles down and I can actually be settled in a region. I write as a call to action and believe me I’m ready to serve whoever wants to have me help them make these thoughts reality in any way, shape, or form.

We can do better. This is a call to action. A call to thought. A call to start a conversation.

What do you think of the conference session proposal/selection process? Have you seen something that works really well in a different industry? Engage. Find your voice and share it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. 


All About Development

“That session was not at all what the description said it was going to be.”

“Oh. My. Gosh. I can’t take this, want to skip out and go see what those *insert local novelty food here* are all about?”

“7:30 a.m. session? Pfft. I’m sleeping in, what about you?”

Raise your hand if you have said one of these three things in your experience at a higher education conference. Don’t be shy, no one knows what you are reading or why your hand is up.

Maybe this comes from a place of annoyance since I wasn’t able to attend a national conference this spring. Maybe it comes from wanting to poke the box of the “establishment” of how higher education conferences run. Maybe it comes from simply wanting to stop thinking and start sharing, writing, posting my ideas for all to see. Whatever the case, here is what I’m thinking. We do conferences wrong and have been for years.

How does a typical conference go? Let me break it down for you.

– Pick one of the over used overall themes that typically speak to building, growing, overcoming, sustaining or reaching new heights.
– Get a semi famous keynote speaker to justify a pricey conference registration. (But skimp on the WiFi? o_O)
– Figure out what style badge, ribbons, and free swag you will hand out. This reminds me of getting a toy for buying a happy meal and like those days, sometimes the toy was better than the meal.
– Over order on the coffee, pasta, chicken and cheesecake.
– Stuff the schedule with sessions, often putting similar sessions in the same time just to tease attendees.
– Fill the marketplace with services that 70% of your conference goers won’t talk to unless there is a free iPad or Kindle raffle involved.

I could go on but I’d rather get into the meat of the post and motivation for it. First it started with the results of a TuesTally where 50% of the respondents said their innovation came from attending conferences. Now I assume they mean higher education conferences for the sake of the argument. Seeing a great program from another school and bringing it back to yours is NOT innovative. What that there is, is called recycling. There is nothing wrong with recycling, if fact it is very resourceful but it is far from innovation.

With that stewing in my head, a tweet from Valerie Heruska set me off to even more ideation. Which lead me to ask the question that sparked some lively 8AM EST chatter.

Are conferences professional development or institutional development? Thoughts? #sachat

The basis for the question was thinking about whether or not those who attending conferences are doing so for their own development or for the development of their institution. Am I going to develop my skills? Or am I going to see what programs I can develop for my campus?

In the past, the programs I’ve attended have had little to do with me and everything to do with my institution. Now I’d be lying if I said that the knowledge learned in some cases stuck with me, but if you told me what sessions I went to in Philly at NASPA 12 – I can only recall one (Thank you Tony Doody and Patrick Love). Ask me what sessions I attended in Chicago at NASPA 11 and you have a better chance of me remembering what I was wearing on August 5th, 1991. The point is, I look for ideas that can be applied immediately to my current position and I imagine many others do as well. I don’t go in with a learning plan or set of goals. Again, the ideas I gain will be for my institution’s development of their program offerings. It doesn’t make me a more developed professional; it makes me a good idea recycler.

“Hey XYZ U is doing this and I think we can make it work here.” This is NOT personal or professional development.

You know what is professional development? Sitting in Starbucks with two colleagues as we prepare to share our leadership programming idea. Especially when those two are awesome people.

You know what is not professional development? Attending our session. This has nothing to do with the development of the audience and everything to do with sharing how awesome we are for coming up with a new idea and how the attendance could use it. They don’t get developed from hearing us share this, they get an idea to recycle.

You know what else is professional development? Attending a social and watching one of the best connectors I’ve ever been in the presence of and soaking in how she does it so I can adapt it to my style and be as effective in helping others network.

You know what else is not professional development? Hearing a former politician, activist, author give a room of practitioners a commencement style speech where we are thanked for our service and told that change starts with us. Right…you know how change starts? By taking the money we paid for your name and for you to speak for an hour and using it to fund grants for struggling institutions to apply for so they can develop new programs.

“So Joe, you seem to have all the answers. If you were a conference chair, what would you do differently?”

Simple. I wouldn’t call it a conference. I’d call it an opportunity. I’d call it anything but a meeting. Get together to engage, act, do, share, learn. Do not get together to present, preach, collect handouts, or break out into small groups (also known as, “We can’t fill XX minutes so let’s break them out into small groups for 15 minutes.”)

I would replace the marketplace with INSTITUTIONAL service providers and replace it with personal service providers. Valerie tweeted that she needed professional head shots done. Who doesn’t? I know I do. Let’s replace that booth that has some random software that organizes clubs and orgs in a new way with a professional photographer who is paid to be there. The photographer(s) will be prepared throughout the conference (free of charge) for a simple professional head shout. Who wants a free professional head shot over another free recycled materials shoulder bag? This guy does.

Why are we spending money on badges, ribbons, pins, pens, folders, etc? I’ll come prepared with materials, I don’t need more free pens, paper, pins, or ribbons. You know what I need for my professional development? Something to hand out to those I meet. Why not have these be the sponsored gift for registering for the conference? And don’t tell me there isn’t money for it. I’ve attended regional conferences that offered trivia and other novelties for night entertainment. Good effort but really I’d much rather leave with a professional head shot, not a caricature. If I wanted novelties, I can do that on my campus almost every other week.

Those are just two ideas for how to make the experience more about professional development. One more that I’d talked about before is the program submission process. How has this not improved in all the years of conferences? Submit your program 4-6 months before the conference, have your peers review it, get approval for it, and present the materials that were “new” and “relevant to the theme” 6 months prior to the date you actually present. Huh?! Boston ConFAB was a step in the right direction. “Here’s a topic in the news today, discuss.”

I’m running out of steam but I certainly hope this spurs some conversation and gets your fired up. Disagree with me. Let’s have an intellectual sparring match, I’m all for it. I have more that I’ll share later as these ideas come together.

Until then, my professional development fund money that would have been spent on a trip to Arizona will most likely end up going to adding to my office library. That sort of development is renewable, inexpensive, and benefits anyone who wants to read it. (Oh, and it leads to more innovation and less recycling.) Can any of the sessions you attended last year in Philadelphia/Baltimore do that?

Note: This is specifically to conferences. Institutes are actually doing something right. Intimate, deep connections fostered through more discussions, less presentations. More mentoring, less preaching. 


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